Chapter 7
Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software

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Table of Contents



Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Project Gutenburg

On September 27, 1983, computer programmers logging on
to the Usenet newsgroup net.unix-wizards encountered an
unusual message. Posted in the small hours of the
morning, 12:30 a.m. to be exact, and signed by
rms@mit-oz , the message's subject line was terse but
attention-grabbing. "New UNIX implementation," it read.
Instead of introducing a newly released version of
Unix, however, the message's opening paragraph issued a
call to arms: Starting this Thanksgiving I am going to
write a complete Unix-compatible software system called
GNU (for Gnu's Not Unix), and give it away free to
everyone who can use it. Contributions of time, money,
programs and equipment are greatly needed.1 To an
experienced Unix developer, the message was a mixture
of idealism and hubris. Not only did the author pledge
to rebuild the already mature Unix operating system
from the ground up, he also proposed to improve it in
places. The new GNU system, the author predicted, would
carry all the usual components-a text editor, a shell
program to run Unix-compatible applications, a
compiler, "and a few other things."See Richard Stallman, "Initial GNU
(September 1983).
 It would also contain many enticing features that
other Unix systems didn't yet offer: a graphic user
interface based on the Lisp programming language, a
crash-proof file system, and networking protocols built
according to MIT's internal networking system.

"GNU will be able to run Unix programs, but will not be
identical to Unix," the author wrote. "We will make all
improvements that are convenient, based on our
experience with other operating systems."

Anticipating a skeptical response on some readers'
part, the author made sure to follow up his
operating-system outline with a brief biographical
sketch titled, "Who am I?": I am Richard Stallman,
inventor of the original much-imitated EMACS editor,
now at the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT. I have
worked extensively on compilers, editors, debuggers,
command interpreters, the Incompatible Timesharing
System and the Lisp Machine operating system. I
pioneered terminal-independent display support in ITS.
In addition I have implemented one crashproof file
system and two window systems for Lisp machines. As
fate would have it, Stallman's fanciful GNU Project
missed its Thanksgiving launch date. By January, 1984,
however, Stallman made good on his promise and fully
immersed himself in the world of Unix software
development. For a software architect raised on ITS, it
was like designing suburban shopping malls instead of
Moorish palaces. Even so, building a Unix-like
operating system had its hidden advantages. ITS had
been powerful, but it also possessed an Achilles' heel:
MIT hackers had designed it to take specific advantage
of the DEC-built PDP line. When AI Lab administrators
elected to phase out the lab's powerful PDP-10 machine
in the early 1980s, the operating system that hackers
once likened to a vibrant city became an instant ghost
town. Unix, on the other hand, was designed for
mobility and long-term survival. Originally developed
by junior scientists at AT&T, the program had slipped
out under corporate-management radar, finding a happy
home in the cash-strapped world of academic computer
systems. With fewer resources than their MIT brethren,
Unix developers had customized the software to ride
atop a motley assortment of hardware systems:
everything from the 16-bit PDP-11-a machine considered
fit for only small tasks by most AI Lab hackers-to
32-bit mainframes such as the VAX 11/780. By 1983, a
few companies, most notably Sun Microsystems, were even
going so far as to develop a new generation of
microcomputers, dubbed "workstations," to take
advantage of the increasingly ubiquitous operating system.

To facilitate this process, the developers in charge of
designing the dominant Unix strains made sure to keep
an extra layer of abstraction between the software and
the machine. Instead of tailoring the operating system
to take advantage of a specific machine's resources-as
the AI Lab hackers had done with ITS and the
PDP-10-Unix developers favored a more generic,
off-the-rack approach. Focusing more on the
interlocking standards and specifications that held the
operating system's many subcomponents together, rather
than the actual components themselves, they created a
system that could be quickly modified to suit the
tastes of any machine. If a user quibbled with a
certain portion, the standards made it possible to pull
out an individual subcomponent and either fix it or
replace it with something better. Simply put, what the
Unix approach lacked in terms of style or aesthetics,
it more than made up for in terms of flexibility and
economy, hence its rapid adoption.See Marshall Kirk McKusick, "Twenty Years of
Unix," Open Sources (O'Reilly & Associates, Inc.,
1999): 38.

Stallman's decision to start developing the GNU system
was triggered by the end of the ITS system that the AI
Lab hackers had nurtured for so long. The demise of ITS
had been a traumatic blow to Stallman. Coming on the
heels of the Xerox laser printer episode, it offered
further evidence that the AI Lab hacker culture was
losing its immunity to business practices in the
outside world.

Like the software code that composed it, the roots of
ITS' demise stretched way back. Defense spending, long
a major font for computer-science research, had dried
up during the post-Vietnam years. In a desperate quest
for new funds, laboratories and universities turned to
the private sector. In the case of the AI Lab, winning
over private investors was an easy sell. Home to some
of the most ambitious computer-science projects of the
post-war era, the lab became a quick incubator of
technology. Indeed, by 1980, most of the lab's staff,
including many hackers, were dividing its time between
Institute and commercial projects.

What at first seemed like a win-win deal-hackers got to
work on the best projects, giving the lab first look at
many of the newest computer technologies coming down
the pike-soon revealed itself as a Faustian bargain.
The more time hackers devoted to cutting-edge
commercial projects, the less time they had to devote
to general maintenance on the lab's baroque software
infrastructure. Soon, companies began hiring away
hackers outright in an attempt to monopolize their time
and attention. With fewer hackers to mind the shop,
programs and machines took longer to fix. Even worse,
Stallman says, the lab began to undergo a "demographic
change." The hackers who had once formed a vocal
minority within the AI Lab were losing membership while
"the professors and the students who didn't really love
the [PDP-10] were just as numerous as before."See Richard Stallman (1986).

The breaking point came in 1982. That was the year the
lab's administration decided to upgrade its main
computer, the PDP-10. Digital, the corporation that
manufactured the PDP-10, had discontinued the line.
Although the company still offered a high-powered
mainframe, dubbed the KL-10, the new machine required a
drastic rewrite or "port" of ITS if hackers wanted to
continue running the same operating system. Fearful
that the lab had lost its critical mass of in-house
programming talent, AI Lab faculty members pressed for
Twenex, a commercial operating system developed by
Digital. Outnumbered, the hackers had no choice but to comply.

"Without hackers to maintain the system, [faculty
members] said, `We're going to have a disaster; we must
have commercial software,'" Stallman would recall a few
years later. "They said, `We can expect the company to
maintain it.' It proved that they were utterly wrong,
but that's what they did."

At first, hackers viewed the Twenex system as yet
another authoritarian symbol begging to be subverted.
The system's name itself was a protest. Officially
dubbed TOPS-20 by DEC, it was a successor to TOPS-10, a
commercial operating system DEC marketed for the
PDP-10. Bolt Beranek Newman had deveoped an improved
version, dubbed Tenex, which TOPS-20 drew upon.Multiple sources: see Richard
Stallman interview,
Gerald Sussman email, and Jargon File 3.0.0.
 Stallman, the hacker who coined the Twenex term, says
he came up with the name as a way to avoid using the
TOPS-20 name. "The system was far from tops, so there
was no way I was going to call it that," Stallman
recalls. "So I decided to insert a `w' in the Tenex
name and call it Twenex."

The machine that ran the Twenex/TOPS-20 system had its
own derisive nickname: Oz. According to one hacker
legend, the machine got its nickname because it
required a smaller PDP-11 machine to power its
terminal. One hacker, upon viewing the KL-10-PDP-11
setup for the first time, likened it to the wizard's
bombastic onscreen introduction in the Wizard of Oz. "I
am the great and powerful Oz," the hacker intoned. "Pay
no attention to the PDP-11 behind that console."See

If hackers laughed when they first encountered the
KL-10, their laughter quickly died when they
encountered Twenex. Not only did Twenex boast built-in
security, but the system's software engineers had
designed the tools and applications with the security
system in mind. What once had been a cat-and-mouse game
over passwords in the case of the Laboratory for
Computer Science's security system, now became an
out-and-out battle over system management. System
administrators argued that without security, the Oz
system was more prone to accidental crashes. Hackers
argued that crashes could be better prevented by
overhauling the source code. Unfortunately, the number
of hackers with the time and inclination to perform
this sort of overhaul had dwindled to the point that
the system-administrator argument prevailed.

Cadging passwords and deliberately crashing the system
in order to glean evidence from the resulting wreckage,
Stallman successfully foiled the system administrators'
attempt to assert control. After one foiled "coup
d'etat," Stallman issued an alert to the entire AI staff.

"There has been another attempt to seize power,"
Stallman wrote. "So far, the aristocratic forces have
been defeated." To protect his identity, Stallman
signed the message "Radio Free OZ."

The disguise was a thin one at best. By 1982,
Stallman's aversion to passwords and secrecy had become
so well known that users outside the AI Laboratory were
using his account as a stepping stone to the ARPAnet,
the research-funded computer network that would serve
as a foundation for today's Internet. One such
"tourist" during the early 1980s was Don Hopkins, a
California programmer who learned through the hacking
grapevine that all an outsider needed to do to gain
access to MIT's vaunted ITS system was to log in under
the initials RMS and enter the same three-letter
monogram when the system requested a password.

"I'm eternally grateful that MIT let me and many other
people use their computers for free," says Hopkins. "It
meant a lot to many people."

This so-called "tourist" policy, which had been openly
tolerated by MIT management during the ITS years,See "MIT AI Lab Tourist
 fell by the wayside when Oz became the lab's primary
link to the ARPAnet. At first, Stallman continued his
policy of repeating his login ID as a password so
outside users could follow in his footsteps. Over time,
however, the Oz's fragility prompted administrators to
bar outsiders who, through sheer accident or malicious
intent, might bring down the system. When those same
administrators eventually demanded that Stallman stop
publishing his password, Stallman, citing personal
ethics, refused to do so and ceased using the Oz system

"[When] passwords first appeared at the MIT AI Lab I
[decided] to follow my belief that there should be no
passwords," Stallman would later say. "Because I don't
believe that it's really desirable to have security on
a computer, I shouldn't be willing to help uphold the
security regime."

Stallman's refusal to bow before the great and powerful
Oz symbolized the growing tension between hackers and
AI Lab management during the early 1980s. This tension
paled in comparison to the conflict that raged within
the hacker community itself. By the time the KL-10
arrived, the hacker community had already divided into
two camps. The first centered around a software company
called Symbolics, Inc. The second centered around
Symbolics chief rival, Lisp Machines, Inc. (LMI). Both
companies were in a race to market the Lisp Machine, a
device built to take full advantage of the Lisp
programming language.

Created by artificial-intelligence research pioneer
John McCarthy, a MIT artificial-intelligence researcher
during the late 1950s, Lisp is an elegant language
well-suited for programs charged with heavy-duty
sorting and processing. The language's name is a
shortened version of LISt Processing. Following
McCarthy's departure to the Stanford Artificial
Intelligence Laboratory, MIT hackers refined the
language into a local dialect dubbed MACLISP. The "MAC"
stood for Project MAC, the DARPA-funded research
project that gave birth to the AI Lab and the
Laboratory for Computer Science. Led by AI Lab
arch-hacker Richard Greenblatt, AI Lab programmers
during the 1970s built up an entire Lisp-based
operating system, dubbed the Lisp Machine operating
system. By 1980, the Lisp Machine project had generated
two commercial spin-offs. Symbolics was headed by
Russell Noftsker, a former AI Lab administrator, and
Lisp Machines, Inc., was headed by Greenblatt.

The Lisp Machine software was hacker-built, meaning it
was owned by MIT but available for anyone to copy as
per hacker custom. Such a system limited the marketing
advantage of any company hoping to license the software
from MIT and market it as unique. To secure an
advantage, and to bolster the aspects of the operating
system that customers might consider attractive, the
companies recruited various AI Lab hackers and set them
working on various components of the Lisp Machine
operating system outside the auspices of the AI Lab.

The most aggressive in this strategy was Symbolics. By
the end of 1980, the company had hired 14 AI Lab
staffers as part-time consultants to develop its
version of the Lisp Machine. Apart from Stallman, the
rest signed on to help LMI.See H. P. Newquist, The Brain Makers: Genius, Ego,
Greed in the Quest for Machines that Think (Sams
Publishing, 1994): 172.

At first, Stallman accepted both companies' attempt to
commercialize the Lisp machine, even though it meant
more work for him. Both licensed the Lisp Machine OS
source code from MIT, and it was Stallman's job to
update the lab's own Lisp Machine to keep pace with the
latest innovations. Although Symbolics' license with
MIT gave Stallman the right to review, but not copy,
Symbolics' source code, Stallman says a "gentleman's
agreement" between Symbolics management and the AI Lab
made it possible to borrow attractive snippets in
traditional hacker fashion.

On March 16, 1982, a date Stallman remembers well
because it was his birthday, Symbolics executives
decided to end this gentlemen's agreement. The move was
largely strategic. LMI, the primary competition in the
Lisp Machine marketplace, was essentially using a copy
of the AI Lab Lisp Machine. Rather than subsidize the
development of a market rival, Symbolics executives
elected to enforce the letter of the license. If the AI
Lab wanted its operating system to stay current with
the Symbolics operating system, the lab would have to
switch over to a Symbolics machine and sever its
connection to LMI.

As the person responsible for keeping up the lab's Lisp
Machine, Stallman was incensed. Viewing this
announcement as an "ultimatum," he retaliated by
disconnecting Symbolics' microwave communications link
to the laboratory. He then vowed never to work on a
Symbolics machine and pledged his immediate allegiance
to LMI. "The way I saw it, the AI Lab was a neutral
country, like Belgium in World War I," Stallman says.
"If Germany invades Belgium, Belgium declares war on
Germany and sides with Britain and France."

The circumstances of the so-called "Symbolics War" of
1982-1983 depend heavily on the source doing the
telling. When Symbolics executives noticed that their
latest features were still appearing in the AI Lab Lisp
Machine and, by extension, the LMI Lisp machine, they
installed a "spy" program on Stallman's computer
terminal. Stallman says he was rewriting the features
from scratch, taking advantage of the license's review
clause but also taking pains to make the source code as
different as possible. Symbolics executives argued
otherwise and took their case to MIT administration.
According to 1994 book, The Brain Makers: Genius, Ego,
and Greed, and the Quest for Machines That Think,
written by Harvey Newquist, the administration
responded with a warning to Stallman to "stay away"
from the Lisp Machine project.Ibid.: 196. According to Stallman,
MIT administrators backed Stallman up. "I was never
threatened," he says. "I did make changes in my
practices, though. Just to be ultra safe, I no longer
read their source code. I used only the documentation
and wrote the code from that."

Whatever the outcome, the bickering solidified
Stallman's resolve. With no source code to review,
Stallman filled in the software gaps according to his
own tastes and enlisted members of the AI Lab to
provide a continuous stream of bug reports. He also
made sure LMI programmers had direct access to the
changes. "I was going to punish Symbolics if it was the
last thing I did," Stallman says.

Such statements are revealing. Not only do they shed
light on Stallman's nonpacifist nature, they also
reflect the intense level of emotion triggered by the
conflict. According to another Newquist-related story,
Stallman became so irate at one point that he issued an
email threatening to "wrap myself in dynamite and walk
into Symbolics' offices."Ibid. Newquist, who says this anecdote was confirmed
several Symbolics executives, writes, "The message
caused a brief flurry of excitement and speculation on
the part of Symbolics' employees, but ultimately, no
one took Stallman's outburst that seriously."
 Although Stallman would deny any memory of the email
and still describes its existence as a "vicious rumor,"
he acknowledges that such thoughts did enter his head.
"I definitely did have fantasies of killing myself and
destroying their building in the process," Stallman
says. "I thought my life was over."

The level of despair owed much to what Stallman viewed
as the "destruction" of his "home"-i.e., the demise of
the AI Lab's close-knit hacker subculture. In a later
email interview with Levy, Stallman would liken himself
to the historical figure Ishi, the last surviving
member of the Yahi, a Pacific Northwest tribe wiped out
during the Indian wars of the 1860s and 1870s. The
analogy casts Stallman's survival in epic, almost
mythical, terms. In reality, however, it glosses over
the tension between Stallman and his fellow AI Lab
hackers prior to the Symbolics-LMI schism. Instead of
seeing Symbolics as an exterminating force, many of
Stallman's colleagues saw it as a belated bid for
relevance. In commercializing the Lisp Machine, the
company pushed hacker principles of engineer-driven
software design out of the ivory-tower confines of the
AI Lab and into the corporate marketplace where
manager-driven design principles held sway. Rather than
viewing Stallman as a holdout, many hackers saw him as
a troubling anachronism.

Stallman does not dispute this alternate view of
historical events. In fact, he says it was yet another
reason for the hostility triggered by the Symbolics
"ultimatum." Even before Symbolics hired away most of
the AI Lab's hacker staff, Stallman says many of the
hackers who later joined Symbolics were shunning him.
"I was no longer getting invited to go to Chinatown,"
Stallman recalls. "The custom started by Greenblatt was
that if you went out to dinner, you went around or sent
a message asking anybody at the lab if they also wanted
to go. Sometime around 1980-1981, I stopped getting
asked. They were not only not inviting me, but one
person later confessed that he had been pressured to
lie to me to keep their going away to dinner without me
a secret."

Although Stallman felt anger toward the hackers who
orchestrated this petty form of ostracism, the
Symbolics controversy dredged up a new kind of anger,
the anger of a person about to lose his home. When
Symbolics stopped sending over its source-code changes,
Stallman responded by holing up in his MIT offices and
rewriting each new software feature and tool from
scratch. Frustrating as it may have been, it guaranteed
that future Lisp Machine users had unfettered access to
the same features as Symbolics users.

It also guaranteed Stallman's legendary status within
the hacker community. Already renowned for his work
with Emacs, Stallman's ability to match the output of
an entire team of Symbolics programmers-a team that
included more than a few legendary hackers itself-still
stands has one of the major human accomplishments of
the Information Age, or of any age for that matter.
Dubbing it a "master hack" and Stallman himself a
"virtual John Henry of computer code," author Steven
Levy notes that many of his Symbolics-employed rivals
had no choice but to pay their idealistic former
comrade grudging respect. Levy quotes Bill Gosper, a
hacker who eventually went to work for Symbolics in the
company's Palo Alto office, expressing amazement over
Stallman's output during this period: I can see
something Stallman wrote, and I might decide it was bad
(probably not, but somebody could convince me it was
bad), and I would still say, "But wait a
minute-Stallman doesn't have anybody to argue with all
night over there. He's working alone! It's incredible
anyone could do this alone!"See Steven Levy, Hackers (Penguin USA [paperback],
1984): 426.
 For Stallman, the months spent playing catch up with
Symbolics evoke a mixture of pride and profound
sadness. As a dyed-in-the-wool liberal whose father had
served in World War II, Stallman is no pacifist. In
many ways, the Symbolics war offered the rite of
passage toward which Stallman had been careening ever
since joining the AI Lab staff a decade before. At the
same time, however, it coincided with the traumatic
destruction of the AI Lab hacker culture that had
nurtured Stallman since his teenage years. One day,
while taking a break from writing code, Stallman
experienced a traumatic moment passing through the
lab's equipment room. There, Stallman encountered the
hulking, unused frame of the PDP-10 machine. Startled
by the dormant lights, lights that once actively
blinked out a silent code indicating the status of the
internal program, Stallman says the emotional impact
was not unlike coming across a beloved family member's
well-preserved corpse.

"I started crying right there in the equipment room,"
he says. "Seeing the machine there, dead, with nobody
left to fix it, it all drove home how completely my
community had been destroyed."

Stallman would have little opportunity to mourn. The
Lisp Machine, despite all the furor it invoked and all
the labor that had gone into making it, was merely a
sideshow to the large battles in the technology
marketplace. The relentless pace of computer
miniaturization was bringing in newer, more powerful
microprocessors that would soon incorporate the
machine's hardware and software capabilities like a
modern metropolis swallowing up an ancient desert village.

Riding atop this microprocessor wave were
hundreds-thousands-of commercial software programs,
each protected by a patchwork of user licenses and
nondisclosure agreements that made it impossible for
hackers to review or share source code. The licenses
were crude and ill-fitting, but by 1983 they had become
strong enough to satisfy the courts and scare away
would-be interlopers. Software, once a form of garnish
most hardware companies gave away to make their
expensive computer systems more flavorful, was quickly
becoming the main dish. In their increasing hunger for
new games and features, users were putting aside the
traditional demand to review the recipe after every meal.

Nowhere was this state of affairs more evident than in
the realm of personal computer systems. Companies such
as Apple Computer and Commodore were minting fresh
millionaires selling machines with built-in operating
systems. Unaware of the hacker culture and its distaste
for binary-only software, many of these users saw
little need to protest when these companies failed to
attach the accompanying source-code files. A few
anarchic adherents of the hacker ethic helped propel
that ethic into this new marketplace, but for the most
part, the marketplace rewarded the programmers speedy
enough to write new programs and savvy enough to
copyright them as legally protected works.

One of the most notorious of these programmers was Bill
Gates, a Harvard dropout two years Stallman's junior.
Although Stallman didn't know it at the time, seven
years before sending out his message to the n
et.unix-wizards newsgroup, Gates, a budding
entrepreneur and general partner with the
Albuquerque-based software firm Micro-Soft, later
spelled as Microsoft, had sent out his own open letter
to the software-developer community. Written in
response to the PC users copying Micro-Soft's software
programs, Gates' " Open Letter to Hobbyists" had
excoriated the notion of communal software development.

"Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?"
asked Gates. "What hobbyist can put three man-years
into programming, finding all bugs, documenting his
product, and distributing it for free?"See Bill Gates, "An Open Letter to
Hobbyists" (February
3, 1976). To view an online copy of this letter, go to

Although few hackers at the AI Lab saw the missive,
Gates' 1976 letter nevertheless represented the
changing attitude toward software both among commercial
software companies and commercial software developers.
Why treat software as a zero-cost commodity when the
market said otherwise? As the 1970s gave way to the
1980s, selling software became more than a way to
recoup costs; it became a political statement. At a
time when the Reagan Administration was rushing to
dismantle many of the federal regulations and spending
programs that had been built up during the half century
following the Great Depression, more than a few
software programmers saw the hacker ethic as
anticompetitive and, by extension, un-American. At
best, it was a throwback to the anticorporate attitudes
of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like a Wall Street
banker discovering an old tie-dyed shirt hiding between
French-cuffed shirts and double-breasted suits, many
computer programmers treated the hacker ethic as an
embarrassing reminder of an idealistic age.

For a man who had spent the entire 1960s as an
embarrassing throwback to the 1950s, Stallman didn't
mind living out of step with his peers. As a programmer
used to working with the best machines and the best
software, however, Stallman faced what he could only
describe as a "stark moral choice": either get over his
ethical objection for " proprietary" software-the term
Stallman and his fellow hackers used to describe any
program that carried private copyright or end-user
license that restricted copying and modification-or
dedicate his life to building an alternate,
nonproprietary system of software programs. Given his
recent months-long ordeal with Symbolics, Stallman felt
more comfortable with the latter option. "I suppose I
could have stopped working on computers altogether,"
Stallman says. "I had no special skills, but I'm sure I
could have become a waiter. Not at a fancy restaurant,
probably, but I could've been a waiter somewhere."

Being a waiter-i.e., dropping out of programming
altogether-would have meant completely giving up an
activity, computer programming, that had given him so
much pleasure. Looking back on his life since moving to
Cambridge, Stallman finds it easy to identify lengthy
periods when software programming provided the only
pleasure. Rather than drop out, Stallman decided to
stick it out.

An atheist, Stallman rejects notions such as fate,
dharma, or a divine calling in life. Nevertheless, he
does feel that the decision to shun proprietary
software and build an operating system to help others
do the same was a natural one. After all, it was
Stallman's own personal combination of stubbornness,
foresight, and coding virtuosity that led him to
consider a fork in the road most others didn't know
existed. In describing the decision in a chapter for
the 1999 book, Open Sources, Stallman cites the spirit
encapsulated in the words of the Jewish sage Hillel: If
I am not for myself, who will be for me?If I am only
for myself, what am I?If not now, when?See Richard Stallman, Open Sources
(O'Reilly &
Associates, Inc., 1999): 56. Stallman adds his own
footnote to this statement, writing, "As an atheist, I
don't follow any religious leaders, but I sometimes
find I admire something one of them has said."
 Speaking to audiences, Stallman avoids the religious
route and expresses the decision in pragmatic terms. "I
asked myself: what could I, an operating-system
developer, do to improve the situation? It wasn't until
I examined the question for a while that I realized an
operating-system developer was exactly what was needed
to solve the problem."

Once he reached that decision, Stallman says,
everything else "fell into place." He would abstain
from using software programs that forced him to
compromise his ethical beliefs, while at the same time
devoting his life to the creation of software that
would make it easier for others to follow the same
path. Pledging to build a free software operating
system "or die trying-of old age, of course," Stallman
quips, he resigned from the MIT staff in January, 1984,
to build GNU.

The resignation distanced Stallman's work from the
legal auspices of MIT. Still, Stallman had enough
friends and allies within the AI Lab to retain
rent-free access to his MIT office. He also had the
ability to secure outside consulting gigs to underwrite
the early stages of the GNU Project. In resigning from
MIT, however, Stallman negated any debate about
conflict of interest or Institute ownership of the
software. The man whose early adulthood fear of social
isolation had driven him deeper and deeper into the AI
Lab's embrace was now building a legal firewall between
himself and that environment.

For the first few months, Stallman operated in
isolation from the Unix community as well. Although his
announcement to the net.unix-wizards group had
attracted sympathetic responses, few volunteers signed
on to join the crusade in its early stages.

"The community reaction was pretty much uniform,"
recalls Rich Morin, leader of a Unix user group at the
time. "People said, `Oh, that's a great idea. Show us
your code. Show us it can be done.'"

In true hacker fashion, Stallman began looking for
existing programs and tools that could be converted
into GNU programs and tools. One of the first was a
compiler named VUCK, which converted programs written
in the popular C programming language into
machine-readable code. Translated from the Dutch, the
program's acronym stood for the Free University
Compiler Kit. Optimistic, Stallman asked the program's
author if the program was free. When the author
informed him that the words "Free University" were a
reference to the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam,
Stallman was chagrined.

"He responded derisively, stating that the university
was free but the compiler was not," recalls Stallman.
"I therefore decided that my first program for the GNU
Project would be a multi-language, multi-platform compiler."

Eventually Stallman found a Pastel language compiler
written by programmers at Lawrence Livermore National
Lab. According to Stallman's knowledge at the time, the
compiler was free to copy and modify. Unfortunately,
the program possessed a sizable design flaw: it saved
each program into core memory, tying up precious space
for other software activities. On mainframe systems
this design flaw had been forgivable. On Unix systems
it was a crippling barrier, since the machines that ran
Unix were too small to handle the large files
generated. Stallman made substantial progress at first,
building a C-compatible frontend to the compiler. By
summer, however, he had come to the conclusion that he
would have to build a totally new compiler from scratch.

In September of 1984, Stallman shelved compiler
development for the near term and began searching for
lower-lying fruit. He began development of a GNU
version of Emacs, the program he himself had been
supervising for a decade. The decision was strategic.
Within the Unix community, the two native editor
programs were vi, written by Sun Microsystems cofounder
Bill Joy, and ed, written by Bell Labs scientist (and
Unix cocreator) Ken Thompson. Both were useful and
popular, but neither offered the endlessly expandable
nature of Emacs. In rewriting Emacs for the Unix
audience, Stallman stood a better chance of showing off
his skills. It also stood to reason that Emacs users
might be more attuned to the Stallman mentality.

Looking back, Stallman says he didn't view the decision
in strategic terms. "I wanted an Emacs, and I had a
good opportunity to develop one."

Once again, the notion of reinventing the wheel grated
on Stallman's efficient hacker sensibilities. In
writing a Unix version of Emacs, Stallman was soon
following the footsteps of Carnegie Mellon graduate
student James Gosling, author of a C-based version
dubbed Gosling Emacs or GOSMACS. Gosling's version of
Emacs included an interpreter that exploited a
simplified offshoot of the Lisp language called
MOCKLISP. Determined to build GNU Emacs on a similar
Lisp foundation, Stallman borrowed copiously from
Gosling's innovations. Although Gosling had put GOSMACS
under copyright and had sold the rights to UniPress, a
privately held software company, Stallman cited the
assurances of a fellow developer who had participated
in the early MOCKLISP interpreter. According to the
developer, Gosling, while a Ph.D. student at Carnegie
Mellon, had assured early collaborators that their work
would remain accessible. When UniPress caught wind of
Stallman's project, however, the company threatened to
enforce the copyright. Once again, Stallman faced the
prospect of building from the ground up.

In the course of reverse-engineering Gosling's
interpreter, Stallman would create a fully functional
Lisp interpreter, rendering the need for Gosling's
original interpreter moot. Nevertheless, the notion of
developers selling off software rights-indeed, the very
notion of developers having software rights to sell in
the first place-rankled Stallman. In a 1986 speech at
the Swedish Royal Technical Institute, Stallman cited
the UniPress incident as yet another example of the
dangers associated with proprietary software.

"Sometimes I think that perhaps one of the best things
I could do with my life is find a gigantic pile of
proprietary software that was a trade secret, and start
handing out copies on a street corner so it wouldn't be
a trade secret any more," said Stallman. "Perhaps that
would be a much more efficient way for me to give
people new free software than actually writing it
myself; but everyone is too cowardly to even take it."

Despite the stress it generated, the dispute over
Gosling's innovations would assist both Stallman and
the free software movement in the long term. It would
force Stallman to address the weaknesses of the Emacs
Commune and the informal trust system that had allowed
problematic offshoots to emerge. It would also force
Stallman to sharpen the free software movement's
political objectives. Following the release of GNU
Emacs in 1985, Stallman issued " The GNU Manifesto," an
expansion of the original announcement posted in
September, 1983. Stallman included within the document
a lengthy section devoted to the many arguments used by
commercial and academic programmers to justify the
proliferation of proprietary software programs. One
argument, "Don't programmers deserve a reward for their
creativity," earned a response encapsulating Stallman's
anger over the recent Gosling Emacs episode:

"If anything deserves a reward, it is social
contribution," Stallman wrote. "Creativity can be a
social contribution, but only in so far [sic] as
society is free to use the results. If programmers
deserve to be rewarded for creating innovative
programs, by the same token they deserve to be punished
if they restrict the use of these programs."See Richard Stallman, "The GNU
Manifesto" (1985).

With the release of GNU Emacs, the GNU Project finally
had code to show. It also had the burdens of any
software-based enterprise. As more and more Unix
developers began playing with the software, money,
gifts, and requests for tapes began to pour in. To
address the business side of the GNU Project, Stallman
drafted a few of his colleagues and formed the Free
Software Foundation (FSF), a nonprofit organization
dedicated to speeding the GNU Project towards its goal.
With Stallman as president and various hacker allies as
board members, the FSF helped provide a corporate face
for the GNU Project.

Robert Chassell, a programmer then working at Lisp
Machines, Inc., became one of five charter board
members at the Free Software Foundation following a
dinner conversation with Stallman. Chassell also served
as the organization's treasurer, a role that started
small but quickly grew.

"I think in '85 our total expenses and revenue were
something in the order of $23,000, give or take,"
Chassell recalls. "Richard had his office, and we
borrowed space. I put all the stuff, especially the
tapes, under my desk. It wasn't until sometime later
LMI loaned us some space where we could store tapes and
things of that sort."

In addition to providing a face, the Free Software
Foundation provided a center of gravity for other
disenchanted programmers. The Unix market that had
seemed so collegial even at the time of Stallman's
initial GNU announcement was becoming increasingly
competitive. In an attempt to tighten their hold on
customers, companies were starting to close off access
to Unix source code, a trend that only speeded the
number of inquiries into ongoing GNU software projects.
The Unix wizards who once regarded Stallman as a noisy
kook were now beginning to see him as a software Cassandra.

"A lot of people don't realize, until they've had it
happen to them, how frustrating it can be to spend a
few years working on a software program only to have it
taken away," says Chassell, summarizing the feelings
and opinions of the correspondents writing in to the
FSF during the early years. "After that happens a
couple of times, you start to say to yourself, `Hey,
wait a minute.'"

For Chassell, the decision to participate in the Free
Software Foundation came down to his own personal
feelings of loss. Prior to LMI, Chassell had been
working for hire, writing an introductory book on Unix
for Cadmus, Inc., a Cambridge-area software company.
When Cadmus folded, taking the rights to the book down
with it, Chassell says he attempted to buy the rights
back with no success.

"As far as I know, that book is still sitting on shelf
somewhere, unusable, uncopyable, just taken out of the
system," Chassell says. "It was quite a good
introduction if I may say so myself. It would have
taken maybe three or four months to convert [the book]
into a perfectly usable introduction to GNU/Linux
today. The whole experience, aside from what I have in
my memory, was lost."

Forced to watch his work sink into the mire while his
erstwhile employer struggled through bankruptcy,
Chassell says he felt a hint of the anger that drove
Stallman to fits of apoplexy. "The main clarity, for
me, was the sense that if you want to have a decent
life, you don't want to have bits of it closed off,"
Chassell says. "This whole idea of having the freedom
to go in and to fix something and modify it, whatever
it may be, it really makes a difference. It makes one
think happily that after you've lived a few years that
what you've done is worthwhile. Because otherwise it
just gets taken away and thrown out or abandoned or, at
the very least, you no longer have any relation to it.
It's like losing a bit of your life."